Throughout the Mountain State, many crafters — both newcomers and experts at sewing — have stepped up to help fill gaps in the state and national supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) by making reusable fabric masks for health care personnel and other essential workers.
In the weeks before Gov. Jim Justice issued a stay-at-home order on March 24, Sue Pifer, owner of the Elkins Sewing Center in Randolph County, said business briefly slowed down. A calm she attributes to customers’ general uncertainty about the virus and its impact in Appalachia.
Pifer expected to close her doors and operate on a call-ahead, curbside basis for her customer base. That lasted for about three weeks before business boomed.
“The demand was greater than I could handle by myself,” Pifer said.
Customers — new and established — started asking for mask-making supplies to sew protective gear for family, friends and essential workers, such as emergency squads and grocery store staff.
“We’ve had a lot of people who are beginners coming in just wanting to sew and make masks,” Pifer said.
Sewing makes a comeback
Some are dusting off their old equipment to help fill the need within their community and in the region.
“A lot of people are getting machines out that they haven’t sewed on in many years due to time constraints. They put them away for whatever reason. They got it out and realized it’s fun and satisfying to make a project and to make a project that will help somebody,” Pifer said.
The number of masks her customers have made with her supplies is “beyond comprehension,” Pifer said, estimating some customers singlehandedly made 50 to 500 masks.
The need for masks has been great and varied.
Hospitals or health care vendors, for example, may request donations of one specific sewing style for extra coverage on masks, while other industries may only be interested in simple “face covers,” Pifer said.
For the first time in its 38-year history, the Elkins Sewing Center isn’t offering hands-on courses, so when customers visit and ask for assistance with making masks, Pifer directs them to various online resources and YouTube tutorials.
“We’ve taught classes, quilting and garment construction and craft classes from the beginning,” Pifer said. “It was something I felt was very important, to have an educational component that helps people enhance their creativity.”
Recently, Pifer has noticed an influx of customers, as they continue to isolate, coming in for supplies for their personal projects around the house.
“Besides coming in and asking for elastic and mask fabric, they’re beginning to revert to other products, which we call ‘UFOs’ — or unfinished objects — at home, so they’re utilizing their time well,” Pifer added.
For now, she’s keeping her mask-making supplies, from fabrics to elastics, on a designated rack in the store, especially for individuals who are making masks in bulk.
“I’ve donated fabrics from that rack also,” she explained.
Though individuals are isolated from one another, Pifer said she feels the crafting has helped bring the community together.
“It’s heartwarming that they’re coming together and we’re playing a little part in our corner of what’s been happening,” Pifer said. “We don’t have time to make the masks, but if we can help people create by providing the supplies, we’re happy to do that and we’re happy to see that being done.”
National Guard shops locally
Gabby Chapman of Mink Shoals-based Gabby’s Sewing & More said her business has been able to serve and survive capably over the past several weeks.
“I’ve managed quite well through it,” she said. “After the governor shut down the state, I called the Governor’s Office the very next day, and they granted me the ability to stay open; they said, ‘You are needed.’ I do believe I was the only fabric store open for miles and miles.
“I could not even begin to tell you the number of the thousands and thousands of yards of elastic I’ve sold,” Chapman said. “I’ve been in business for five years, and this has been my best quarter.”
Chapman said she sold 90 sewing machines to the National Guard and “probably 50,000 yards of elastic, cutters, scissors, mattes, threads, pins and needles. They are buying local. They called today wanting 10,000 to 20,000 yards of a medical-grade material to make gowns. The government has the means to shop wherever, but it’s just awesome they are shopping locally.
“The one thing that’s put a fork in my spokes is the backlog of sewing machines,” Chapman said. “They’ve been on back order for about six weeks and we’re still waiting on them.”
She said about 95% of her business lately has involved mask making, first for hospitals and then for the public.
“It’s been crazy, but a good crazy,” the fourth-generation seamstress said. “My fiance, one of my employees and I took turns sewing and just went and went and went. It’s been the silver lining in the cloud of the pandemic. We’re glad we were able to be here to serve the people with masks and repairs. I didn’t sew the masks to make a profit — it was to make people feel secure and safe.”
Yarn on the go
Sara Radow, owner of the Kanawha City Yarn Company, said the store resumed regular hours in mid-May. She is also accepting phone and online orders during the COVID-19 precautionary practices and supplying curbside pick-up services.
“I think that my business will be OK, but it’s going to take a long time. Knitting is seasonal, and we were closed during what is typically called knitting season, in the winter and cooler months. People may not be ready for knitting again until the fall; that makes me a bit different from other hobby-type businesses.
“Some of the companies I use have a drop ship program, where yarn can be mailed directly to the customer,” Radow said. “That has been the biggest help to me. ... I have some walk-in traffic, but I don’t have to limit it; June is typically a slow month, anyway. Things will probably pick back up in November and December.”
The end of a business
One Kanawha Valley fabric shop has not been able to rebound from the pandemic’s economic repercussions, however.
Last week, Maureen Helvey, proprietor of The English Cottage fabric shop in South Charleston, was sorting her remaining inventory for storage as she prepared to close her MacCorkle Avenue store permanently.
“I’m giving away fabrics and masks and packing up my stuff into a storage unit,” she said. “It’s not just because of the coronavirus — [fabric stores] are closing all over the place. A salesman told me over 30% of fabric shops have closed or are closing around the country. The textile mills have been closing because of this. People are buying online.”
Helvey opened The English Cottage in 1995 and said this past Tuesday would be the last day the store would be open. “I’m just going to do flea markets until I get rid of this stuff,” she said.
“I think people need to make a commitment to support these stores if they want them to stay open,” Radow said. “When you lose these, you lose the flavor of your city. Quilters, knitters and crocheters who travel the interstate may pull over for a meal or stop and look for a fabric or knitting store, and we need to have those and keep those choices open.”
Facing tough choices
Though the doors have been closed for a little over two months at WV Quilt in Barboursville, owner Michelle Hill has kept busy.
Hill, who has operated the craft store since 1999, said she is at high-risk for contracting coronavirus. As is her sister, Gloria, who has kept Hill company throughout the pandemic.
“With no income coming in, it’s been rough,” Hill said. “I’m trying to stay positive throughout the whole thing, but there are days where I get so blue that I want to stay in bed and keep the covers over my face. But I’ve got wonderful support; Gloria, my sister, has been with me since all this started.”
Hill said she closed her doors after customers continued to visit without wearing face masks to protect themselves and others.
“Surprisingly, a lot of people do not do social distancing,” Hill said. “I understand people coming in here who need a mask, but just to come in and shop and not have a mask ... that’s when I closed.”
It wasn’t an easy decision for Hill, but it was necessary.
“I had a lot of people who didn’t understand the severity [of the situation]. That’s their choice, but my choice is to protect myself and my family and my customers who drop in to say hi to me,” Hill said.
For Hill, 62, who has worked full time since she was 14, slowing down was an overwhelming adjustment.
“I couldn’t stay home,” Hill said. “Breaking the cycle of my routine after 45 years of going to work every day was emotionally too much. I had to go somewhere, so I came to the store and locked the door.
“I’ve been trying to keep myself busy and help others,” she said. “They’re going through a whole lot of a worse time than me. I’m trying to keep my neighbors in masks.”
Hill, her associates and her customers have been making masks for the United Way through a grant given to the Lesage Lions Club, of which she is a member.
“We made 1,500 on the first round,” Hill said. “I had to find the volunteers, and I did. We had a lot the first time around, 25 to 30 people.”
The process took about two-and-a-half to three weeks, she said, adding they were able to produce between 100 and 200 masks per day, depending on the amount of phone traffic.
Taking the occasional break was necessary, but she said the team “had a good system going.”
On average, it takes 38 minutes to make each mask, she said.
Now faced with the decision to reopen on her own terms, Hill said she is at a fork in the road as she debates reopening or retiring.
“Do I want to retire, sell out and say goodbye?” Hill said. “It’s a passion of mine, and I’ve got a wonderful clientele that I’ve built up with long-arm machines and classes. We were gung-ho when this happened, but I’m not ready to open.”
The experience has been traumatic, she said.
“I know financially I’ll survive, but emotionally, I’ll have to think about it,” Hill said. “I worked seven days a week up until two or three years ago. I’m a worker, and this emotionally hit me. … It’s an emotional blow that’s indescribable, but I know I’m not alone.”
While she decides what’s best for herself and WV Quilt, she continues serving her community by making an additional 1,500 masks for various organizations in the area, including Branches Domestic Violence Shelter, Harmony House and Prestera Center.
For now, Hill said she’s seeking volunteers to help with the remaining masks, and donations will be accepted in plastic bags for the organizations to pick up, or to be delivered. Prospective volunteers may contact the shop at 304-544-4383.